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2006 Team Report: San Francisco 49ers

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Starter: Alex Smith
Backup(s): Trent Dilfer, Jesse Palmer, Shaun Hill

Starting QB: It would be safe to say that Alex Smith had one of the most disappointing rookie seasons ever by a quarterback: one TD to 11 INTs Ė and the TD came in the last game against the hapless Houston Texans. He did have to endure one of the weaker, if not the weakest, offensive skill units in the NFL in 2005. To help him, the 49ers addressed that area heavily at the 2006 Draft, taking tight end Vernon Davis with their first pick and skilled offensive players in rounds three, four and six. The recent acquisition of Trent Dilfer via trade is a fantastic move by the 49ers and should speed up Smithís learning curve. Itís hard, however, to imagine Smith being a draftable player in most fantasy leagues.

Backup QB: Trent Dilfer was acquired from Cleveland in return for Ken Dorsey and a draft pick. Dilfer is a Super Bowl winner with the Baltimore Ravens who will be a tremendous influence on Alex Smith and should help accelerate his development. As a passer, Dilfer isnít the most accurate or mobile of quarterbacks, but he is capable of keeping the errors to a minimum and will keep the defense honest.

Running Backs

Starter: Frank Gore
Backup(s): Maurice Hicks, Michael Robinson [R]
Fullback(s): Chris Hetherington, Terry Jackson, Moran Norris

Starting RB: Frank Gore may have finally come full circle. As a high school recruit, Gore was considered a can't miss back and signed with the Miami Hurricanes. He was ahead of Willis McGahee on the depth chart until a blown knee set him back. He was never fully healthy or productive at Miami, yet the 49ers still saw enough potential to add him to the mix. He demonstrated his hard running skills and the capability to play at this level as the 2005 season wore on; outplaying incumbent Kevan Barlow in the process. Gore averaged a full yard and half more than Kevan Barlow. With an improved offensive line, a better passing game and the addition of well-respected Norv Turner as offensive coordinator, Gore could be a emerging player this season if he can stem the injury tide.

Backup RBs: With Kevan Barlow sent packing to the other coast, backups Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson both seem likely to play important roles in the offensive game plan. Conventional wisdom holds that Hicks will be the primary backup given his experience. He is a nice receiver and returns kicks and has shown an ability to start if required. Michael Robinson has been a revelation in camp, converting to running back after playing QB at Penn State. Robinson has great size and appears to be a favorite of Norv Turner; whether that means he will push Hicks for the backup job remains to be seen.

Fullback: With the departure of long time starter Fred Beasley, an opportunity arises for one or all of Moran Norris, Chris Hetherington and Terry Jackson to garner more playing time. Whoever does win the starting gig will have some opportunities for fantasy owners, but none of them has displayed strength in the running game and their receiving skills are just adequate.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Antonio Bryant, Arnaz Battle
Backups: Taylor Jacobs, Bryan Gilmore, Brandon Williams [R], Derrick Hamilton, Rasheed Marshall, Otis Amey, Jason McAddley

Starting WRs: Bryant and Battle have a lock on the two starting roles at wide receiver. Bryant comes over from the Cleveland Browns fresh off a 1,000-yard season. The drafting of Vernon Davis is sure to help avoid constant double-teams and Bryant makes for a nice reserve receiver on fantasy squads. Arnaz Battle is highly regarded by the coaching staff and, like Bryant, signed a new contract in the offseason. The 49ers are hoping Battle and Bryant develop into their future starting tandem for Alex Smith, but Battle has problems staying healthy.

Backup WRs: There are nine guys realistically fighting for a few roster spots. The 49ers traded for Taylor Jacobs in mid-August and he would seem likely to stick in some capacity. His unspiring numbers in three seasons in D.C. (30 catches, 315 yards) leave one to wonder whether a change of scenery will matter much; but he bears watching given the dearth of proven offensive talent in San Francisco. Brandon Williams probably has the best shot of sticking around among the other camp hopefuls. Drafted in the third round, heíll mainly be used in the kicking game, but he does have the skills to become a future No. 3 receiver. Bryan Gilmore could be favourite to win the role this year due to his experience. Derrick Hamilton is the most intriguing case. Highly rated, but he has little playing time in two years due to injury and because he needed development. If he has got over his injury concerns, he offers the 49ers tremendous upside as a No.3.

Tight Ends

Starters: Vernon Davis [R]
Backups: Eric Johnson, Billy Bajema, Terry Jones, Trent Smith, Delanie Walker [R]

Vernon Davis has a skill set that most wide receivers would be jealous of: a sub-4.4 40 time, strength, great hands and great leaping ability. If Davis can translate these skills into the NFL, then weíll be truly blessed. At first, Davis may struggle with expectation and the lack of experience on the 49ers offense. In time, Davis should be a dominant force, but for this season caution would be advised in drafting him too high. Davis is capable of being a fantasy starter this season, but there are lots of better options available for a high pick. If he can be stashed away as a reserve, then it may pay dividends toward the end of the season. Eric Johnson once again comes back after missing a season with injury. Heís determined to prove his worth and will still figure prominently in the 49ers passing game. If Johnson can make it through preseason unscathed, he will definitely receive opportunities in two tight end sets.

Place Kicker

Joe Nedney : After missing the two previous years due to injury, San Francisco gave Nedney a chance and he did not disappoint. He connected on 26 of 28 FGs (92.9%), including 12 of 13 from beyond 40 yards. Comparing the FG production to the teamís offensive TD production (17) explains why the 49ers voted Nedney their MVP. The one area that may have been affected by his prior injuries was kickoffs. He averaged only 59.6 yards, after having previously ranged from 62.2 to 68.0 throughout his career.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Brandon Williams; Maurice Hicks; Michael Robinson; Delanie Walker; Bryan Gilmore; Arnaz Battle

Third round draft pick WR Brandon Williams returned kickoffs (28.0 avg., 9th) for Wisconsin last year. He should step into the return specialist role for the 49ers. If not, they have plenty of options. RB Maurice Hicks led the team in KRs the last two years (34 returns, 20.3 avg.). The team wanted to get WR Rasheed Marshall (26 returns, 18.8 avg.) even more involved, however he had some problems hanging on to the ball. Numerous others have limited experience and could serve as backups. FA acquisition WR Bryan Gilmore had several kickoff returns in each of the last two years in Miami. WR Arnaz Battle was a backup KR in 2004. Sixth round draft pick WR Delanie Walker averaged 25.6 yards and scored once for Central Missouri State last year.

Punt Returners: Brandon Williams; Arnaz Battle; Michael Robinson

Electrifying Brandon Williams took two punts all the way for TDs last year, while averaging 14.6 yards (11th). Two players handled the small number of punt returns for the 49ers last year, and will probably share the backup role this year. Fourth round draft pick WR Michael Robinson joins Marshall as another former QB converted to WR and possible PR. Arnaz Battle was the teamís primary PR in 2004 (31 returns, 8.6 avg., 1 TD).

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: RT Kwame Harris, RG Justin Smiley, C Eric Heitmann, LG Larry Allen, LT Jonas Jennings
Key Backups: G David Baas, T Patrick Estes, T Adam Snyder, C Jeremy Newberry [Inj.]

With the addition of guard Larry Allen, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, this group has the potential to be quite good in 2006. Right tackle Kwame Harris has settled in nicely to the right tackle slot and is improving each year. An interesting battle to watch is at the other guard position between three young, up-and-coming players. Justin Smiley started all 16 games last year but will be pushed hard by 2nd-year player David Baas who entered the lineup towards the end of last season and played very well. Eric Heitmann, a 5th-year player has really come into his own as a dependable starting lineman. He started at center for Jeremy Newberry last season, performed quite well and will be pressed into the job once again in 2006 with Newberry out for the year after his micro-fracture surgery. Tackle Jonas Jennings will be returning from injury this season to anchor the left side of the line. 2nd-year player Adam Snyder started some games for the team last year and improved as time wore on. He is another young player with a bright future. The nucleus of this unit is young and talented and donít be surprised to see this group exceed expectations in 2006.

Team Defense

Year two into HC Mike Nolan's 3-4 retooling, a few important pieces were added through the draft in a continuing effort to create a defense that has some semblance to the intimidating stop units he recently directed as DC of the Ravens. The defense is a work in progress, and rebuilds sometimes require tear downs. OLBs Julian Peterson and Andre Carter were ejected like spent shells and the position was reloaded with rookies Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson (insert pump action shotgun sound). SF has three major weaknesses on defense... DL, LB and DB! They were actually respectable at #18 in rush defense, though that could be an artifact of how crazy easy they were to throw on. The secondary was in complete disarray last year after SS Tony Parrish went on IR near the halfway mark with a nasty spiral leg fracture. Lack of pass rush AND coverage ability is a nasty combination (though good looking first round OLB Manny Lawson will help with former, and the return of Parrish with latter). Last year the NFC West was probably the worst division in the entire league, by several measures (only division in either conference to not have a single defensive representative on the Pro Bowl first team). SF, ARI and STL were all in the bottom third of total defense. The 49ers were the worst of the worst in the NFC West, being tied for #31 in the league at 26.8 PPG against. They brought up the rear in pass defense, giving up a sieve-like 276.7 YPG (this could have something to do with formidable passing attacks of the Cards, Rams and Seahawks). Though middle of the pack with 16 INTs, they were also near the bottom with 28 sacks and 8 FFs. The 49ers look to be at least another FA/draft cycle or two away from sporting a coveted team defense in fantasy leagues (#29 in FBG scoring last season). Check back in 2007.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Bryant Young, DE Marques Douglas, NT Anthony Adams
Backups: DT Isaac Sopoaga, DT Ronald Fields, DE Melvin Oliver

Starting DL: The 34 year old Young is a SF institution (he has played all 12 seasons with the 49ers, a rarity in the free agency era). The four time Pro Bowler is one of the top sack artists in franchise history (77.5). Returned from a gruesome, Theismann-like compound fracture of his leg in characteristic style by winning NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He has succeeded at every level (Notre Dame All-American and NFL Rookie of the Year). His athleticism and freakish lower body power were on display early as he placed third in his state (IL) in both wrestling and the discus throw. Young was pacing for 16+ sacks before a mid-season knee injury took its toll and he was shut out after the seventh game. His rediscovered sack artistry was surprising, as 3-4 DEs usually function as blocking sled dummies (plus he is a natural DT). Not the biggest or fastest dude, he presses his advantage with an electric, lightning quick first step, bridge troll-like leverage, technical mastery and a relentless motor. Douglas was brought over from BAL by Nolan... his size makes him an excellent choice to play DE in a 3-4. He tied for fifteenth among DEs in tackles in 2005 (44) and fourth in 2004 (49 - foreshadowing?), but was far from a big play machine with just one sack last season. Adams is a 300 lb bowling ball whose skill set may be better suited to a 4-3 DT or 3-4 DE... 3-4 NTs are about as relevant to IDP scoring as the stadium's beer vendors.

Backup DL: The backups have very limited experience. Pride of Pago Pago Sopoaga can be a force as a run stuffer and pocket collapser. He is a classic, two-gap block eater who brings more size to the table than Adams (as well as a bigger appetite). Fairly good change of direction ability and movement skills for a massive man mountain. When he plays with leverage he can be about as easy to budge as trying to uproot a tree stump with your bare hands. Former fifth round (2005) soph Fields is ostensibly an interior DL... though a wide-body, he has the athleticism to play on the outside in this scheme. Oliver is a sixth round rookie with an impressive resume. He led an impressive LSU DL (that included Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams) in tackles, TFL and sacks. He will initially back up Douglas and could have some upside at the next level.


Starters: ILB Derek Smith, ILB Jeff Ulbrich, OLB Manny Lawson [R], OLB Brandon Moore
Backups: OLB Corey Smith, OLB Parys Haralson [R], ILB Saleem Rasheed

Starting LBs: While the OLB position may have been blown up with dynamite in the last year, ILBs Smith and Ulbrich remain standing in the midst of the wreckage. Smith may be about as anonymous as his last name, yet is an underrated tackle machine that is part of an exclusive group of active LBs in terms of consistent productivity over an extended time. The 31-year old former ASU third rounder (by way of WAS first four years) has at least 90 combined tackles all nine seasons, and led SF the last five. Pro Bowlers Zach Thomas and Donnie Edwards have 100+ combo tackles in nine seasons, and Derrick Brooks ten straight. Not the biggest playmaker at his position, Smith has just 1 FF and 2 INTs in past five seasons (though 9 sacks in that span is decent for a MLB/ILB). Jeff Ulbrich is healthy after missing last 11 games of 2005 with a torn biceps tendon. The 49ers are counting on Ulbrich in the middle, because last year's replacement, Brandon Moore, is being given a shot on the outside. Moore is running with the first team at outside linebacker, where he must hold off Corey Smith. Rookie Manny Lawson (22nd overall pick) goes from lining up at DE opposite #1 overall Mario Williams to replacing OLB Julian Peterson. An Industrial Engineering major, he has long jumped 25', triple jumped 50' and clocked a 4.4 at the combine at 6'5", 240 lbs. Expect his responsibilities to be kept to a minimum; that is, rushing the passer.

Backup LBs: Ex-Buc and fourth year UFA Smith is another 'tweener so prevalent in the 3-4. He's an undersized, hand-on-the-ground 4-3 DE converted to a 3-4 standup, pass rush-focused LB. Smith flashed ability in limited action last season, and could figure more prominently in the OLB mix in 2006 by either outplaying Brandon Moore or should the 49ers want Moore to return to the inside. He is somewhat of a journeyman who has bounced from practice squad to active roster in his first few seasons. Rookie Parys Haralson (another DE/OLB conversion) will figure into the mix, although it's unclear where at this point. The ex-Vol is third in Tennessee history with 46.5 TFL (#1 & #2 being the late Reggie White and Leonard Little). Haralson seems a more obvious fit as a 3-4 outside pass rusher, but with fellow rookie Manny Lawson a guaranteed starter, the 49ers appear reluctant to entrust two rookie converted defensive ends to man the outside. Saleem Rasheed is a reserve who seems to be missing something. His pro production hasn't caught up to his athleticism or pedigree.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Tony Parrish, FS Mike Adams, CB Shawntae Spencer, CB Walt Harris
Backups: CB Sammy Davis, FS Keith Lewis, SS Mark Roman, SS Chad Williams, FS/CB Marcus Hudson, FS Vickiel Vaughn

Starting DBs: Before former Pro Bowler Parrish suffered a mid-season broken leg (how strongly he rebounds is a key question in 2006), he had started 121 consecutive games in his first eight seasons with CHI and SF. A multi-faceted DB with the physical stature, talent and versatility to line up at FS and SS, equally adept in run support or coverage. One of the league's top ball hawks in the past half decade with Darren Sharper (7 INTs in '02 tied 2nd among safeties & 9 INTs in '03 tied 1st among DBs). His 30 career pass thefts are among the highest totals for active DBs (Sharper has 45). Good athlete who finished first in the state twice (CA) in triple jump and was a collegiate sprinter. Adams is a high effort, "try hard" guy but a limited athleticism stopgap the team would like to upgrade. Good looking third year CB Spencer is an ascendant player. He rocketed up draft boards by posting elite change of direction and agilty drill times at his combine. Proved to have a very pro ready game. Despite a slight frame, has been very effective in run support and has a complete, well-rounded game that includes coverage ability and ball skills... in 2006 he was top 10 among CBs in tackles and PD (broke school record in this stat at Pitt). The 49ers best young DB and a cornerstone player. Harris is a journeyman whose best days are behind him. Battling sophisticated aerial attacks of the NFC West with a depleted secondary at times looked like feeble resistance of modern jet aircraft weapon platforms with crude, primitive and outmoded anti-aircraft artillery.

Backup DBs: The 49ers backup DB depth chart is Byzantine. The cast is as bloated as a feverishly paced noir, and the plot is as thick with red herrings as a slew of whodunits. Speaking of busts, Sammy "Candy Man" Davis was swapped for WR Rashaun Woods. He has the requisite athleticism, but lacks something in coverage and seemed to lose confidence in SD. Rumph and Davis will compete for the CB spot opposite Spencer. Lewis is a reserve and plays a depth and ST terror role. Williams is a midget but feisty in run support and brought by Nolan from BAL for his pound-for-pound toughness. Rookies Hudson (versatility to play deep or on the edge) and Vaughn (one pick removed from Mr. Irrelevant) could be pressed into action early with so many question marks ahead of them. In training camp, the 49ers signed Mark Roman just days after he was released by Green Bay. Roman has valuable starting experience and could quickly challenge for a starting spot. He immediately becomes the 49ers best backup in the secondary, that's for certain.

Last modified: 2006-09-03 06:11:54

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